Today's Microsoft is a new company. While it's true that many of the changes announced under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella were initiated under his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, it's still clear that this isn't the same old company: It's barbecuing sacred cows and embracing smart new directions.
Here are four surprising things Microsoft has embraced publicly in the past week or so that reveal a new and better company.
1. The iPad
Not offering a version of Office for the iPad years ago was a colossal missed opportunity for Microsoft. Back then, the world was far more addicted to and dependent upon Word and the other Office apps. Had the company simply shipped an iPad version, users of Apple's tablet would have jumped on it and Microsoft would have dominated the application scene on iPads the way it did on early Macintoshes.
But Microsoft held back because it was concerned that the iPad might gain widespread acceptance. Well, that train left the station anyway and Microsoft wasn't on board. Users were forced to find alternative office productivity tools, like Apple's Pages and Google Docs, which gained the ability to produce Office-compatible documents sometime after I wrote that column.
But you know what? Better late than never.
Best of all, Microsoft's new iPad version of Office, which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint, is not some grudging, ill-conceived, half-hearted, go-through-the-motions effort. It's a knowingly designed, super-native iPad app.
Microsoft long resisted moving its cash cow to the iPad platform. But when it finally did, it went all the way.
Most of all, the nature of this release shows that it's a new Microsoft, and a better one.
2. Makers (Windows for Internet of Things)
The Internet of Things, of course, is essentially a traditional Microsoft stronghold -- embedded systems -- plus connectivity.
What impresses about Microsoft's initiative here is that it's not yet another offering for giant corporations, big factories or manufacturers. It's for tinkerers, hobbyists and educators.
The new "Things" version of Windows is designed to run on the Galileo hacker board, powered by Intel's Quark chip. It's even compatible with Arduino's open-source, Linux-supporting microcontroller boards.
This is another indication of a new kind of Microsoft, one interested in cultivating the hacker, maker and educational communities.
3. Free software
Microsoft has always charged whatever the market would bear, and sometimes more. But Windows for the Internet of Things, it turns out, is free.
Windows Phone 8.1 will include a voice-activated digital assistant called Cortana.
Astonishingly, the company also announced this week that it will give away Windows Phone for free to handset makers, but only for consumer devices nine inches and smaller. (Microsoft used to charge between $5 and $15 for each device.)
4. Transparency (Cortana notebook)
Microsoft this week unveiled a virtual assistant feature for Windows Phone called Cortana. Broadly comparable to Apple's Siri and Google Now, Cortana listens to your natural language queries, then responds with an answer, an action or some other result.
Like Siri, Cortana has a "personality." Like Google Now, Cortana interrupts you with incoming information that's personalized.
But unlike both Siri and Google Now, Cortana is extremely transparent in what it knows about you, and in what it's set up to do.
This transparency exists in a feature of Cortana called the Notebook. It's basically a document that stores all the personal information Cortana knows about you. For example, it might know your spouse's name is Tyler, so you can place a call on Windows Phone by saying, "Call Tyler." If you simply delete that information from the Notebook, Cortana will "forget" the name.
You can also add personal information as easily as you can delete it.
It's not so much that Cortana has this cool and unique feature. It's that Microsoft is embracing a pretty radical form of end-user transparency, besting even Google in that department, at least in the case of virtual assistant technology.
When you add up Microsoft's historically uncharacteristic embrace of the iPad, makers, free software and data transparency, the sum is a refreshing new company -- one no longer stuck in the past and clinging to obsolete models that no longer work or that never worked.
Surprising announcements coming out of Microsoft give me new hope that the company can completely turn around and emerge from the Steve Ballmer dark ages to embrace the future.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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